Coming to Terms with Our Mortality

Meretta Hart writes in response to our blog on Talking about Death and Dying, the greatest challenge for me has been to accept that one day I will not exist or be here in this body.  Here she reflects on her experience of coming to terms with her own mortality in the light of Stephen Levine’s book “A Year to Live”.

A few years ago a good friend of mine died of a brain tumour.  She was less than fifty years old.  In response, I undertook a week’s solitary vigil.  Mindfully, I cooked and ate simply, walked and meditated twice a day, read books on death and dying, listened to gentle spiritual music and sat in silent contemplation.  During this time my mind-body sensations around my friend softened and deepened.

During the second half of the week, I became more aware of my best friend who had died three years previously. Her dying time had been really difficult.  I began to pay attention to her in the same way as I had done with my younger friend.  By the seventh day, I could sense that both their ‘beings’ had appeared around and within me.  I felt a deep love for them.

The real shock came on the last day of the retreat as I sat in easy contemplation. I suddenly found myself face to face with Me!  My death! Me no longer existing in this world!

As I sat there, initially almost frozen with terror, I experienced an almost overwhelming feeling of nausea followed immediately by a violent urge to flee from that distressing place.  Gradually I became aware of a softening within me.  The week’s spiritual work had enabled me to stay with the terror, holding it, almost embracing it until those awful sensations began to subside.

I realised that I was no longer avoiding the subject of my own death but holding an open curiosity towards it.  Although previously I had acknowledged my mortality, I had not really allowed myself to meet it face on.  Now having spent seven days in such close company with death, I was becoming much less fearful.  I was beginning to feel a desire to get to know and come to terms with it.

That last night I finished reading a book by Stephen Levine called “A Year to Live” in which he shares his experiment of living a year as though it were his last.  I knew that was what I wanted to do.

A major part of this experiment entails a “Life Review”.  Initially, we recall warm times, friends, family, events, insights, teachings that touch our hearts – things for which we can feel grateful.  We then move on to unpleasant memories which require us either to forgive or to be forgiven by those who may have hurt us or whom we may have hurt.

There were other aspects to the experiment which I took on and my life changed dramatically.  I still follow some of the suggestions in Levine’s book.  I feel lighter and more alive.  I experience more joy living in the moment.  Yet I am gently aware of my impending departure from this body (though who knows when) and I now work with people who are either choosing or having to face their own mortality.